By Pradeep Menon Aug. 11, 2022
Laal Singh Chaddha is a faithful remake of Forrest Gump but besides a couple of heartfelt moments it imports no language or perspective of its own.
There’s a long disclaimer at the beginning of Laal Singh Chaddha. By ‘long’, I mean possibly the longest in a Hindi film yet. It feels even lengthier because the entire essay is also read out in full, in shuddh Hindi (apart from being displayed in two languages). The fact that things have been fictionalised and dramatized is repeated so often, in so many contexts, it felt like they were trying to individually placate a billion of us in advance, so that absolutely no one is offended on any count whatsoever. For some reason, as I sat in the darkness listening to Atul Kulkarni’s voice disclaim on and on, it made me hopeful about the film. Had they made something so powerful, incisive and compelling, that they needed a thesis at the top? The short answer turned out to be ‘no’. Is the film a blunt, toothless attempt because it feels like the makers believe fiddling with Indian history might not be wise in these touchy times? Yes – the detailed disclaimer feels wholly redundant by the end of faithful but ultimately forgettable adaptation.
Here’s the thing: the film seems earnest all through, and the effort put into it is visible as well. It couldn’t have been an easy film to make, and with this one in his kitty along with Dangal (2016), Aamir Khan has at least cornered the ‘play-a-lifetime-in-one-movie’ market – such is the nature of his aging and de-aging in the film. (In comparison, it feels like Tom Hanks would have had it relatively easy in the early 90s.) However, the fundamental problem with Laal Singh Chaddha is that they have taken a decades-old film – popular and acclaimed in its day – and then they’ve made almost the exact same film, with no added personality or pizzazz, shaving off the little risqué elements to boot. In his sophomore feature, director Advait Chandan brings no freshness of perspective to the telling; meanwhile, the affectation in Aamir Khan’s performance does no real favours to the film either.
The fundamental problem with Laal Singh Chaddha is that they have taken a decades-old film – popular and acclaimed in its day – and then they’ve made almost the exact same film, with no added personality or pizzazz, shaving off the little risqué elements to boot.
Funnily enough, this is a story that is instantly suited to the inherent magic realism baked into Hindi cinema, especially because it demands leaps of faiths often and in unusual places. Just compare the opening sequences of the two films, both featuring a feather that eventually lands at the feet of the protagonist. While the original had the feather gently swaying and falling to the rhythm of Alan Silvestri’s score, Laal Singh Chaddha’s opening-scene feather gets elaborate choreography to a Pritam number – gloriously chaotic, serendipitously feel-good – before it finally reaches its destination. That sort of inventiveness is sorely missing through the rest of the film, which seems to hit frequently familiar emotional beats even if you have no context of the original film. Then again, if you simply combine two films featuring two other Khans – My Name is Khan (2010) and Bharat (2019) – you end up with something rather close to Forrest Chaddha in spirit and story. The familiarity seems obvious in retrospect, and it makes you wonder what motivated Aamir Khan and those involved to actually pick this story to tell.
The ‘déjà why’ is compounded by many other factors. Pritam’s songs aren’t bad, but they seem to belong to his Standard Borrowed Bank. You could swap out a track from this film with one from his other albums, and no one would know. Kareena Kapoor Khan, radiant as always, feels a little generic because she has just the handful of scenes to work with. When she implores Laal to run, her ‘bhaag Laal, bhaag’ makes you think a certain other Singh would probably have won that lost Olympic medal, if only she was there to beseech him as well. It also feels like that exhortation would have made for a better title for this film, and it makes you wish that she was far more present in it. Naga Chaitanya turns in one of the film’s better performances as Laal Singh’s comrade-in-arms during his days in the army, though his comedic turn often seems to have an unsettling hangover of Omi Vaidya’s Chatur from 3 Idiots (2009).
In the film, the entirety of the suspension of democracy in the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is dealt with a mere ‘yay, the Emergency is over’ line between unnamed passing characters.
Aamir Khan’s central performance is another puzzling choice in the film. Depicting him as just another naïve Indian simpleton – a description that possibly fits most of us – would have made so much more sense, even if you wanted to show a character that doesn’t have the duplicitous selfishness we usually associate with the human condition. The little tics, umms and aahs he uses as a manifestation of whatever unknown syndrome afflicts him, rarely seems like anything else other than a parody of his own work.
We are left, then, with Gump/Chaddha’s raison d’etre – the protagonist’s interplay with key moments of history. It feels like now, more than ever, is the perfect time for a film that reminds us Indians of how we got to where we are. Let me give you an example of how this opportunity is almost criminally wasted in Laal Singh Chaddha. In the mid-70s, Aamir Khan’s titular character is a little boy. (No, it isn’t the greatest de-aging of all time. They’ve just managed to cast a little fellow who uncannily looks like he’d grow up to be Aamir Khan.) The tentpole event of that period in Indian history is the draconian Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In the film, the entirety of the suspension of democracy in the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is dealt with a mere ‘yay, the Emergency is over’ line between unnamed passing characters. What exactly happened during the Emergency? Doubtful that this was even a topic of conversation while making the film.
Considering that the interaction of the fictional lead character with actual history and culture is one of the foundational elements of the film, nearly every real-life connection in Laal Singh’s journey is cosmetic and incidental. The most inventive of the lot includes an adolescent Laal inspiring a future Bollywood superstar’s iconic step; and another one involving the genesis of a popular Indian inner-wear brand. These are cute and/or clever, but they are really only gimmicks, with regards to what else India has seen in those decades.
Considering that the interaction of the fictional lead character with actual history and culture is one of the foundational elements of the film, nearly every real-life connection in Laal Singh’s journey is cosmetic and incidental.
The slow creep of our philosophical progress is impressive only in the context of where we began and where we are today. The marvel of our impossible democracy has outlasted any fad-of-the-generation political project, no matter how charismatic the face at the helm is. Laal Singh Chaddha had the chance to showcase all of this, if only it had the liver and gumption to do so. This idea feels like the only possible reason someone would want to remake that film in this era. Perhaps it is too much of an ask from a commercial Bollywood venture, when their primary interest seems to be to cater to as many people as possible, without offending anyone. With all his years of experience in this business, Aamir Khan should have known that no matter how inoffensively bland your film is, someone or the other is bound to be offended anyway, so why bother playing it safe?